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What Does a Frivolous Lawsuit Mean?

What Does a Frivolous Lawsuit Mean?

Frivolous lawsuits end up wasting the court's time and legal expenses. But what is considered a frivolous lawsuit? Find the answer in this Buzzle article, which gives its legal definition and some examples.
Akshay Chavan
Did You Know?
According to a 2013 report by the US Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, the US legal system is the costliest in the world.
These days, one often hears of people suing others for extreme reasons. Take for example the woman who spilled coffee on herself while driving, and then sued McDonald's, saying that they were guilty of making very hot coffee. Another case is where a man set a ladder in a pile of manure, and then sued the ladder company, upon falling. While these cases may seem silly, there's more to them than meets the eye.

Stella Liebeck, the woman who sued McDonald's, suffered serious burns on 6% of her body, because the fast food giant produces coffee hotter by 50ºF than ordinary. On the other hand, Larry Hodge did not slip from his ladder; it broke under his meager weight, despite the company claiming it could handle up to 1,000 lb.

While these cases had some legal basis, there are, in fact, lawsuits which are simply filed for petty reasons.

What Constitutes a Frivolous Lawsuit?

A frivolous lawsuit is one which is not supported by facts or laws, but intended for malicious purposes. The plaintiff (person who files the case) and his lawyer are aware that they have little chance of winning if the case is pursued, but decide to file suit anyway. Such suits intend to harass, embarrass, or disturb the other party, increase legal costs, or simply delay the legal process.

The term 'frivolous' does not always mean filing a baseless lawsuit; it can also include a baseless motion (requests to the judge), a defendant's (person being sued) answer which doesn't make any point or argument, or an appeal against a judgment without any basis.

A case not based on facts may not always be labeled frivolous, if the individual filing it and his attorney have some faith in their argument. Similarly, the loss of a case also doesn't mean it was frivolous.

Consequences of a Frivolous Lawsuit

Frivolous lawsuits end up wasting the court's and the opposite party's time, expenses, and resources. For this reason, courts take a dim view of such cases. If a lawsuit is discovered to be frivolous, the judge may immediately dismiss it without further hearings. The individual, who has filed the suit may have to pay a civil fine going into thousands of dollars, or even face charges of 'contempt of court' (being disrespectful).

In some cases, lawyers who have a history of arguing frivolous claims may have to pay fines, face citations (a document listing all charges), or even have their license canceled.

Judges are, however, less likely to label claims as frivolous and impose such drastic penalties, as this might deter people from approaching the legal system to resolve disputes. So, the number of such lawsuits is minimal.

How to Respond to a Frivolous Lawsuit

When one faces a frivolous lawsuit or appeal, the best course of action is to hire a competent lawyer who can decide the next course of action. Such cases can be approached in various ways, as given below.
  • The defendant can push for the dismissal of the lawsuit right at the beginning.
  • He/she can fight for financial penalties, called 'sanctions', to be imposed on the opposite party.
  • He can recover his legal expenses from the opposite party.
  • After winning the case, the defendant can file a countersuit for 'malicious prosecution', arguing that the lawsuit was frivolous and fought for malicious motives.

♦ Honda of America Mfg., v. Norman
On the night of December 2, 1992, 23-year-old Karen Norman died after reversing her Honda Civic into Galveston Bay, Texas. Her parents sued Honda Co., claiming that their seat belts couldn't be opened underwater, and even received $65 million in damages from a lower court order. However, an appeals court reversed the order, because it was found that a passenger in the car was able to swim to safety, and the alcohol level in Norman's blood was 0.17 (twice the approved limit).

♦ Overton v. Anheuser-Busch Co.
In 1991, the brewing company Anheuser-Busch was sued for $10,000 by a man named Richard Overton, who claimed that the company indulged in false advertising, as he did not have any success with women after consuming their 'Budweiser' beer, contrary to what was shown in their television advertisement. The case was thrown out of court.

♦ Robert L. Brock v. Robert L. Brock
In 1995, Robert Lee Brock, an inmate at a Virginia prison, sued himself for a sum of $5 million. He believed that he had violated his own civil rights and religious principles by drinking, because according to Brock, all his offenses stemmed from his drinking habit. However, since he couldn't work to sum up the money, he wanted the state (Virginia), who had locked him up, to pay. The case was dismissed.

♦ Roller v. Blaine and Copperfield
Christopher Roller, a resident of Minnesota, sued celebrity magicians David Blaine (for $2 million) and David Copperfield (for $50 million), accusing them of stealing his powers by witchcraft. Roller believed himself to be god, and claimed that the magic tricks performed by the duo were only possible by using divine powers, so they must have stolen them from him.

♦ Aitken v. NBC Television Network
NBC TV network was sued by Austin Aitken, a 49-year-old viewer of their show 'Fear Factor' for damages of $2.5 million. Aitken claimed that one of the stunts in the show which showed contestants eating rats made him vomit and so disoriented that he missed a door, slamming into the wall. The case was thrown out by the judge.

To avoid facing a penalty, legal experts believe that one should not file a baseless claim solely to 'get back' at somebody.